Pivoting the Fan Experience at the Portland Trail Blazers

By Kaitlin Milliken |  March 9, 2021


This podcast is sponsored by PA Consulting, the company that’s bringing ingenuity to life. As strategies, technologies, and innovation collide, PA creates opportunity from complexity. Their diverse teams of experts – including strategists, designers, engineers, scientists, and consultants – combine innovative thinking and breakthrough use of technologies to help clients progress further, faster. PA. Bringing ingenuity to life.  


Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. And we’re back with another episode of this special season, where we take you inside the C-Suite of big organizations. In each episode, we’ll interview a different C-level leader to talk about how they connect to innovation teams. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead. 

Today, we’re pivoting to the world of sports with Dewayne Hankins of the Portland Trail Blazers. Dewayne has been at the organization since 2013. During that time, he’s held many C-level titles, including Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Innovation Officer. At the start of 2021, he took on a new role as the Trial Blazers’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer. 

And even though Dewayne has spent 8 years at the franchise, the 2019-2020 season sticks out as an anomaly. On March 11 of 2020, the NBA stopped play mid-season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Three months later, the league announced that it would continue play in late July. 

Thus the 2020 NBA Bubble was born. Twenty-two teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers, relocated to an isolation zone at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando Florida. Upon arrival, players quarantined for 24 hours, had to produce two negative tests, and adhere to strict social-distancing guidelines. According to the NBA, players who left the bubble had to quarantine for at least 10 days. Enforcement was strict. One Yahoo News story describes an incident where Richaun Holmes of the Sacramento Kings left the bubble to pick up a food delivery — leading to a period of quarantine. There was even an anonymous tip line where those in the bubble could report people who had violated protocol. 

Games were also played in empty stadiums. While teams are playing on home court and traveling again, different teams have different rules for allowing fans in the stadiums. At the Moda Center in Portland, seats will remain empty for the 2020-2021 season. Strict testing and isolation requirements for positive cases still remain in place. I talked to Dwayne on a game day, and he shared the precautions he needs to take before the jump ball. 

Dewayne Hankins: I get tested five times a week for COVID. And I have to have two negative tests before I can come into a game. Then even when I come into a game, I have to wear a mask. And I have to stay six feet apart from someone. We even have these little sensors that beep after a minute of being within six feet of someone. 

Kaitlin Milliken: With the sport taking a very different form, Dewayne and his team had to innovate to stay connected with fans and sponsors. Dewayne will share how his team responded after this time out. 


Katilin Milliken: When it comes to making change at large organizations, sometimes you need a little help. We know there are a lot of software and service providers out there, so we created a two-day event to gather the best and brightest for you — so you can see what might work best for your organization. In each session, you’ll hear a quick, two-minute pitch from each solution or software provider. Then you can join a breakout session where you can see a demo in action. This event will be online on March 11 and the 18 from 11am-12:30pm Eastern. This is a no-pressure environment. No one is getting your email after to send you a million follow ups. So you can just take a chance to explore. The first session will focus on software that can aid your innovation initiatives. The second will take a deep dive into solutions, consulting, and services. Register for free at Now, back to the show. 


Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Dewayne Hankins of the Portland Trail Blazers. During the conversation, Dewayne talks about his experiences as Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer at the franchise. He also shares the mandate for his new role as Chief Commercial Officer and how teams can get buy-in for their innovation story. 

Talk a little bit about your career path and how it led you to your current role at the Portland Trailblazers.

Dewayne Hankins: You know, I’d always loved sports growing up. I grew up in Chicago during the Michael Jordan era. And so, basketball championships kept on happening, and it was very exciting and fun to follow. And I had no idea you could actually work in sports. Got really excited about the prospect of doing a PR for a sports team, and so worked for some minor league sports teams in PR. Worked for the Miami Marlins in PR. And then as I shifted my career to Minnesota with the Wild, I really started to become interested in how social media was becoming a big part of team strategies. In digital in particular, websites being more than just places you could buy tickets or know where to park. When you came to a game, you could actually have articles, and videos, and content, and create a place where the brand could reside and breathe a little bit. And so I was really continually making the case to our executive team that we needed to be in these spaces, and that I wanted us to be present and relevant. 

And then I went to Los Angeles and interviewed for a job with the LA Kings. And they were really excited about doing those things and diving into those realms. And so I took that job, and have worked for the same boss now for 10 years [LAUGHS], both in LA and in Portland. And he is someone that’s really been a great leader of mine and a mentor of mine. And you’re lucky when you can have both of those things. 

With Portland, I’ve gone from overseeing marketing, to overseeing all of our innovation in the past, and now overseeing our commercial efforts, which includes sponsorships. So my current role has me overseeing our brand team, our digital content group, and then all of our corporate partnerships teams as well.

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, I did want to talk about that when we booked this interview, you were the Chief Marketing Officer. And now you are the Chief Commercial Officer. How has your mandate shifted? And what are the expectations that you have in this current role?

Dewayne Hankins: My Chief Marketing Officer role had me in charge of all of our brand team, as well as our analytics and digital strategy team. My new role has been more focused on brand and how our corporate partnerships, and our extensions, and our collaborations will help enhance the brand — both from an engagement standpoint, but also from a monetization standpoint. So where my job before was probably more helping people with numbers to make better decisions, my job is now more to help create those revenue numbers. And so I think that’s probably the biggest difference. There’s a big opportunity for innovation within sponsorship. And so looking forward to tackling what that might mean.

Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned the revenue side. And I know a big part of the sports industry has been selling tickets, which was already something that was becoming more challenging as more people were staying home with better TVs and ways to experience the game and their living rooms. And then it changed again, obviously, in 2020, especially with the creation of the NBA bubble league in Orlando, which is very far from Portland. How did you have to pivot your tactics? And what were your marketing strategies to address that very different season last year?

Dewayne Hankins: Really focusing on digital has been massive, and it’s something that teams have talked about for years, but have never been forced to reckon with. And so the teams that were more prepared for digital, and monetization of digital, I think we’re better off when it came to the start of the pandemic. And the teams that weren’t had a lot to learn, and probably a lot of staff that they had to either train up or hire to become prepared. 

I would say we fell somewhere in the middle of that there definitely were areas that we were thinking forward and having foresight, and then there are areas that we weren’t. And one of the things that I’ve been trying to spend the last year on actually is: What behaviors will have changed for fans? I’m a huge music fan. Obviously, I can’t wait to safely go to a concert again. Someone will one day tell me that it’s okay to go to concerts, and I’ll be vaccinated and I won’t have any fear about going to shows, but I know that other people will. And I know that we’re going to have to do a lot of work to convince people to come back to events. We were the first thing to close, and we will be the last thing anyone’s allowed to go to again. What has the last 11 months taught both us as an organization and our fans about their relationship to their sports team, or the Trail Blazers in our case?

I mean, there’s a couple things there, I think, that you can break down. One of them is, you know, when we come back, how do we make sure our fans know that we’re safe, that we’ve improved the experience. Because you’re right, I mean, sitting in front of a TV, HD, 4k viewing experience is a tough thing to beat. And we need to make sure that our fan experience is superior to what it was in the past. We already see younger fans, especially Gen Z, they’re not engaged with basketball or any sport as much as the older generations are. And there’s a lot of other things that are taking up their mind and attention, and so what can basketball and or the Blazers in this case specifically do to get some of that mindshare. So, that’s something that I think about. 

And then the pandemic was just sort of this big software update for the world. You know, I mean, e-commerce exploded to levels that it was not supposed to reach until sometime in the next decade. The way that food delivery things changed — grocery delivery. I mean, there’s so many things and habits that have changed. And so how, as a business, we can’t just open up our doors again, when it’s safe, and do everything the same exact way. We have to go back and see what consumer habits have changed, and then apply those to our business.

Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned that there were digital capabilities that your team already had. And there were some that you didn’t quite have yet, because you fell somewhere in the middle. What were the capabilities that you had in place and what unexpectedly accelerated during the pandemic?

Dewayne Hankins: Our content team is phenomenal. Give so much credit to them. We were lucky enough to be able to send someone down to the Orlando bubble. And she did a phenomenal job capturing content and being around the team and getting content that no one would have ever had access to. And so I felt really good about the content that we were delivering and the engagement that we were having with our team.  

Where I think that we were caught a little bit just short-sighted was with the revenue impact. So from a sponsorship standpoint, 10 percent of our revenue comes from digital, which is not a lot when you’re a marketer, and you spend 60 to 70 percent of your budget on digital. And that’s where we’re at now. So it felt like there was a big opportunity there. And when it came time to figure out a valuation for continuing the sponsorship going forward, 90 percent of that wasn’t in digital, wasn’t things like games. It was in things like our broadcast, and it was in things that were much harder to replicate in a bubble. 

And I think even for all teams, you’ve talked about ticket sales. Most teams, especially in the NBA, the business model is such that tickets take up a large portion of the revenue pie as well. And so when you’re not selling tickets, you’re scraping by to figure out how to find those revenue opportunities. So for us, it’s really about getting our sponsorship team to understand digital better — not just in selling it, but in activating it and understanding it, and understanding how our partners can use it. We’re a smaller market in the NBA, we’re 22 in the league in terms of market size. So a lot of our partners aren’t national or global partners, they’re local partners. And so we have to do a lot of explanation and kind of walk them through how digital helps them achieve their business goals. And I think that’s one of the things that the last, you know, I’d say six months, as we get into this season, we’ve been trying to do. 

I mean, what you have seen in games is a lot more signage on the court, whether it’s virtual signage, or otherwise. And so our games are looking a little bit more like a NASCAR vehicle, which is okay. But I don’t think that’s going to be the ultimate solution down the road. We’re gonna have to find more authentic connections and partnerships with partners in our sport.

Kaitlin Milliken: I know that your current role is very sponsorship focused. But I do have a few questions related to the fan experience. You mentioned that your team sent someone into the bubble to capture footage, what were some other ways that fans were — and still are — engaging with the team while they’re not able to be in the stands?

Dewayne Hankins: I think our goal this year was to create the in-arena experience, both for our fans and for our players. So for our fans, you know, we have our second screen application that we’ve launched this year, it allows fans access to watch pregame warm ups on their phone, or laptop, or mobile device. And so that’s something that you would not have access to unless you came to a game. So fans being able to watch things like shoot around I think is a really helpful way to make them feel included. There’s a live chat inside. 

We have this “Beat the Bbuzzer” quiz show where you could win a new car from Toyota. That is something that’s sort of like HQ Trivia, but you have to predict what happens in the game. So, it’s keeping fans sort of engaged with that experience. And we’ve really tried to improve some broadcast elements. Without having fans in the arena, you have like an infinite amount of places you can put cameras to help fans feel closer to the action. And so our broadcast director has done a great job moving cameras closer and getting more close up shots and really trying to get that fan perspective that they’d never would get unless they were at the game. 

Our social media content or trying to bring fans again, behind the scenes. What are the things they’re missing by not being at the arena? What are the things they’re missing by not being able to be around the team and constantly sort of answering those questions as it relates to fan experience. 

The other piece that is important to mention is that we’re being very upfront and authentic and open with our fans about when we’re going to open back up. And we’re not holding their money hostage in any way. So for season ticket holders, if they wanted their money back through all this, we’ve been able to easily give that back to them. If they wanted to keep their money on their account for seats for next year, we were able to do that. As things change within our state regarding health regulations, we’re keeping fans updated on what that means for coming back to games. And even when we do open back up, hopefully at some point, and it’s a smaller amount of fans, we’re being very transparent about who those fans are that will be allowed to come to games and who won’t just based on the limited numbers. So all those things I hope are giving us some good grace and good confidence from our fans.

Kaitlin Milliken: So I think a part of meeting the fan needs and keeping in touch has to do with gathering consumer insight. How is your team staying close to fans? How do you communicate with them to make sure that what you’re doing is matching up with what they want?

Dewayne Hankins: Our data team has done a really great job of sending out these poll surveys about every month, related to how fans feel about coming back to games and what makes them feel safe and what makes them feel unsafe. It’s been great to keep tabs on the things they think are important, which are obviously people wearing masks at our games. Things they don’t think are important, which are exiting the building in small chunks. They want to get out of the building quickly. At the same time, we’re obviously working closely with the Oregon Health Authority to make sure that the plans we’re presenting to them are going to pass their tests. 

Jody Allen is the Chairwoman of the team, but the team really is owned by our fans. I really don’t think it’s any different during COVID times. It’s just a matter of making sure we’re meeting their needs and, again, being transparent and authentic with them. 

Kaitlin Milliken: I wanted to ask a question about one of your previous roles at the Portland Trail Blazers where you were both the Chief Marketing and Chief Innovation Officer. How did those two roles interconnect and work together?

Dewayne Hankins: With my role of Chief Innovation Officer, we were starting to bring in both things like youth and things like diversity, equity, and inclusion. And it was our understanding that in Portland, we could continue to market to this same type of fan, and we could certainly sell tickets. And we could certainly continue to drive some amount of revenue and bring folks into the fold. But we were doing that potentially at the expense of long-term gains. Portland is not — I mean, it’s well known — is not the most diverse market. You need to make people feel comfortable and welcome and like they belong, and so that was a big piece of it. I think people don’t often think of that when they think about innovation. But that was certainly one big huge part that was eye opening for us. 

The second one was, what other parts of the business are we sacrificing long-term flexibility for short-term gain? And so things like our broadcast deals, where our games are on cable, which is great for us for right now, but when most people are cutting the cord on cable, is that really the best place for you to be long term? Are you really able to create fan relationships with younger demographics when they don’t have cable or anything like that?  

And then the other ones are how we want to build our staff going forward. What are the skills and assets that we look for on the innovation team to really think about what the future of sports teams business looks like? The sports industry is an interesting place. On one hand, it’s great because you often have a lot of other industries that you can look to for lots of ideas. So I’ll give you an example of ticket sales. You always just charge the same price for every game. And then we learned that you know what you can charge more for other opponents than other opponents. So we started doing that. You can charge more for a Friday night than a Monday night. And of course, we got that idea from hotels and airlines and things like that, so that was an easy one. 

The bad part about the sports industry is because there’s such a loyal, passionate, crazy fan base, you’re not pushed to innovate unless you really try to do it on your own. Because the love that people feel for your brand sort of goes beyond the product, it goes to the players and the winning percentages and the championships. And so our owner before Jody was her brother, Paul Allen, who’s one of the greatest innovators anyone’s ever known — started Microsoft with Bill Gates, and he was pushing us to innovate all the time. He never settled. He never felt like what we were doing was resting on our laurels. We needed to be pushing sort of forward all the time. 

And the marketing and innovation piece made a lot of sense, because the way that we market to our fans changes every few months. And that’s because the ways that fans use their free time and the way they consume media changes every three month. It changes when TikTok comes on board. It changes when Google changes something. It changes when Apple changes their iOS. We can’t use the same marketing plan from last year, let alone the same one from five years ago. So we’re constantly iterating and innovating, and in a lot of ways those two roles went hand in hand for sure.

Kaitlin Milliken: When you’re in an industry where performance is so huge, the need to innovate can sort of fall lower on the list. And I think that’s something that a lot of our listeners can relate to where maybe they’re working in an innovation unit, and they need to constantly communicate to senior leadership and other folks in the organization why this work is important. Do you have any storytelling tips for teams that are looking to share why their innovation initiative or why their new product is something that can help them win?

Dewayne Hankins: Anytime we want to do this, we need to create the business case. And so that is first identifying the challenge of the problem. You’d be surprised to know that a lot of leaders are very busy — you maybe wouldn’t be surprised to know that — but a lot of leaders are very busy. And so they don’t often have the time to think about sort of the potential landmines that are coming up ahead. And so if you can create a narrative that helps explain why this business may be challenged in three, to five, to one year, six months, whatever your timeline is, you can really grab the attention of your listener that way. 

The second thing is, you know, it doesn’t have to be an immediate ROI. I mean, certainly a lot of innovation concepts aren’t. But you have to be able to see sort of the long game through it, and be able to present what your vision looks like for the future. Again, I go back to the fact that I’ve been lucky to work for leaders who understand the need and desire for innovation. Even though that’s the case, it’s still very much — as you said — a storytelling tactic and really laying out what the challenges are, because you may see them super clearly. But you have to be able to explain them in a way that makes sense for your audience and meet them where they are.

Kaitlin Milliken: My final question for you, you’ve been in the C-suite at the Portland Trail Blazers for quite some time, you’ve had a lot of different titles. What are some of the big learnings from your experience in those positions at the organization that you’d like to share?

Dewayne Hankins: Some of the greatest learnings are your only as good as your team. So if you have a great team, acknowledge that, acknowledge them, push them. Be honest with them. Be transparent with them. Make them better. They’ll make you better, and have that 360 degree sort of feedback going back and forth. Because you’re not going to be right and they’re not going to be right, but the answer that you come up with together will be correct. And so I think that part, I really, really, really push on, and I think is really important.  

Just because you are in the C-suite, it doesn’t mean you know everything. In fact, it oftentimes you’re not on the front lines, and you don’t know a lot of the things that your own staff is experiencing and seeing. So keeping an open mind. And then the other big piece of learning is you’re never going to be an expert in these areas. You may think that and, you know, I’ve been called “digital guru” and things like that, and I maybe was 10 years ago, but the landscape has changed so much, and I’ve been so focused on other things that you can’t really even stay that way. Taking the time to learn, again, from your staff from anything that you articles that you find websites that you’re interested in. I’ve read a ton of books to stay up to date on the types of things that kind of keep my mind thinking and progressing and moving forward. And those would be my main categories. 

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. And I think that’s an excellent note to close on it. Thank you so much for your time.

Dewayne Hankins: Thank you. Appreciate it. 


Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and edited by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Dewayne Hankins for sharing his insights. An extra bonus thank you to InnoLead’s Kristen Krasinskas for answering my basketball questions. For more tips and tricks from inside the C-suite, be sure to subscribe to this special season of Innovation Answered. You can find our show wherever you get your podcasts and on our website, Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon.